Is written language a means of knowledge?

The topic is not explicitly discussed, as far as I know, in European or American epistemologists (who all seem to assume that it obviously is), whereas it is relevant in South Asian epistemology of language.

Graheli’s contribution to this workshop focuses on the epistemology of written versus spoken language in the Nyāya school of philosophy, since written language is a case in which the seeming transparency of language is revealed to be illusory. This revelation can take the form of the realisation that reading needs additional skills on top of the ones required to understand one’s mother tongue. In the case of Nyāya, the epistemic account of written words sees the knowledge conveyed through written words as involving an inference, from the written to the audible words. Thus, can written language still amount to a separate instrument of knowledge? If not, how can one avoid the risks of reductionism?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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10 thoughts on “Is written language a means of knowledge?

  1. It is important to note that in the Egyptian Mystery Practice there were strict guidelines about those who entered into the priesthood taking a vow to never write down the teachings and practices they were learning. The thought was that transcription onto papyrus would enable outside invaders and other cultures to steal the ideas away. So, a very provocative book I have been reading on this very subject is Stolen Legacy by George G.M. James. He argues that the reason why Socrates did NOT write down his teachings was because he was actually trained in the Egyptian Mystery Practices. Plato DID write down Socratic Dialogues after the fact (so there is some filter through memory work) and Plato may have served as an arbiter, or conduit between the Greek State that hated Socrates possibly because he was teaching and ‘corrupting the youth’ by teaching them the Egyptian ways which were foreign to the Greeks. Socrates’ philosophical work takes on a whole new light after reading this book.

    Also, I would like to add that George Kovacs wrote a two part book series on the necessity of teaching ‘transparency in language’ in the humanities…Literal Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know First
    Literal Literacy II: What Every American Needs to Know Second
    Both are available through the Edwin Mellen Press. Interesting reads indeed!

    • thank you, Bradley. As you probably know, similar concerns are present also in India, with several schools objecting against written texts since they can be read by everyone, not just initiated ones and can thus harm the ones who are not ready for them.

      The general idea seems to be that the communication process needs a specific reader/listener and is not exhausted in an author writing down a text.

  2. Hi, Elisa!
    I’d rather say, the difference is not between written and spoken language as such, but between the ways one operates with the information conveyed. When we are discussing something vividly or reading a plain text (like a letter from a friend about week-end plans), we understand information directly from words, so in this case language can be considered a separate pramana. But if we are reflecting on some utterances – oral or written – which need to be interpreted, then most probably we are operating with anumana. Indeed in our modern life we do not often have an opportunity to reflect on some oral utterance. But in ancient India this could certainly be the case, as a lot of information was transmitted orally and the words of the teacher were first memorized and only after that reflected upon.

  3. I do not think so. For me written language is just data. Sources of information not knowledge. After analysing data information becomes knowledge.

    • This is an interesting point, somehow similar to Evgenija’s one (above). Do you apply the same check in the case of inferential or perceptual cognitions?

  4. This interesting discussion reminds me of a narration in one of the late poet AK Ramanujan’s essays: His uncle said once when he had a cold that he could not do his customary reading. The implication is that for the elder, the words on a page did not become Vaikhari until it was read out aloud, which the cold prevented by blocking the nasal passage and clogging the vocal mechanism.

    In fact, if we accept the four-fold view of language (as Vaikhari, MadhyamA, PaSyantee, and ParA), the written word — visual in contrast to the auditoriness of Vaikharee — becomes MadhyamA in the reader. But it can only bypass the Vaikharee stage. And in the case of Ramanujan’s uncle, it could not bypass the audible stage perhaps because of the elder’s Brahminical belief in the perfect equivalence of SOUND and SENSE — the SabdARttha-YugaLam. “VaagaRtthAviva sampR^ktau,” as KALidAsa said.

    DKM Kartha

    • thanks. Yes, it seems that words do not become such unless they are uttered —A.K. Ramanujan’s uncle surely thought/felt so.